Tolkien on angelic secondary causality

For Tolkien, as for Aquinas, the delegated, secondary, or intermediate agency of angels and Valar does not displace the Creator’s immediate causality by intervening between him and his effects in such a way as to place his agency at a further level of remove (as per Cox’s suggestion of a Platonic “third entity” acting as “a kind of buffer, so to speak, between the two extremes” would imply). For Tolkien following St. Thomas, the interaction of divine and creaturely causality is not a “zero-sum game,”[1] as though God’s line of action operated on the same plane and therefore in competition with his creatures, even if his causal power should always infinitely “outweigh” theirs. As St. Thomas explains in his commentary on the Liber de Causis (the Proclean, Neoplatonic text of anonymous authorship), in a hierarchy of causes, every higher cause is more rather than less the cause of a given effect than any intermediate, secondary cause, inasmuch as the higher, primary cause is the cause of both the effect and the secondary cause together.[2] The higher cause, in other words, does not cause the intermediate secondary cause in isolation from the latter’s effects, but causes the secondary causes along with its effects: in causing the secondary cause, in other words, it also causes the entire causal order, or the very causality, of the secondary cause.

Thus, whereas Verlyn Flieger, for example, finds in the highly mediated character of Tolkien’s universe evidence of a divine indifference towards and absence from the world, Tolkien’s implicit Thomism permits him to represent this same mediating framework as a sign of a divine presence and personalism.[3] Of particular significance here is Tolkien’s habit in his letters of referring to the Valar and their vassals, the Maiar, as “angels” or “angelic beings,” as well as his reference to the Istari or “wizards” (e.g., Gandalf and Saruman) as “guardian angels” (L 159n). In a letter written to his son Michael, an epistle as notable for its sentiments of fatherly concern as for its creative theological speculation, Tolkien articulates his personal philosophy of angelic mediation which I suggest is to be brought to bear on his fiction:

Your reference to the care of your guardian angel… reminded me of a sudden vision (or perhaps apperception which at once turned itself into pictorial form in my mind) I had not long ago when spending half an hour in St Gregory’s before the Blessed Sacrament when the Quarant’ Ore was being held there. I perceived or thought of the Light of God and in it suspended one small mote (or millions of motes to only one of which was my small mind directed), glittering white because of the individual ray from the Light which both held and lit it. (Not that there were individual rays issuing from the Light, but the mere existence of the mote and its position in relation to the Light was in itself a line, and the line was Light). And the ray was the Guardian Angel of the mote: not a thing interposed between God and the creature, but God’s very attention itself, personalized. And I do not mean “personified,” by a mere figure of speech according to the tendencies of human language, but a real (finite) person. Thinking of it since—for the whole thing was very unmediated, and not recapturable in clumsy language, certainly not the great sense of joy that accompanied it and the realization that the shining poised mote was myself (or any other human person that I might think of with love)—it has occurred to me that (I speak diffidently and have no idea whether such a notion is legitimate: it is at any rate quite separate from the vision of the Light and the poised mote) this is a finite parallel to the Infinite. As the love of the Father and Son (who are infinite and equal) is a Person, so the love and attention of the Light to the Mote is a person (that is both with us and in Heaven): finite but divine: i.e. angelic. Anyway, dearest, I received comfort, part of which took this curious form, which I have (I fear) failed to convey: except that I have with me now a definite awareness of you poised and shining in the Light—though your face (as all our faces) is turned from it. But we might see the glimmer in the faces (and persons as apprehended in love) of others… (L 99, emphasis added)

To Tolkien’s Proclean and Thomistic way of thinking, the highly mediated universe of his fiction constitutes not a substitute or displacement of the divine presence in the world, but is precisely a form and evidence of that presence. The mediating role of the Ainur, the Valar, the Maiar, and the Istari in Tolkien’s fictional world are not in competition with or a threat to the Creator’s involvement, but are a guarantee of that involvement. As Tolkien puts it, they represent “God’s very attention itself, personalized.”


[1] Milbank, The Suspended Middle, 91.

[2] Aquinas, Commentary on the Book of Causes, trans. Guagliardo, et al., prop. 1.

[3] Similar to Flieger, Catherine Madsen also (wrongly) sees creaturely agency as displacing divine agency: “without the possibility of direct supernatural intervention it is the natural beings, incapable of being entirely good, who must bring everything about. Therefore all triumphs are mixed; every victory over evil is also a depletion of the good.” Madsen, “Light from an Invisible Lamp,” 41.

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One thought on “Tolkien on angelic secondary causality

  1. Pingback: The Theology of Eucatastrophe | The Flame Imperishable

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